Monday, July 7, 2008
Forty or so years from now when critics are gathering data about the greatest and most influential films of the nineties I am sure that it will be Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction that finds its way to the top of most of the lists, which is of course not a bad choice at all. If I am around and asked though I will cast my vote for Danny Boyle’s miraculous Trainspotting, a film that I believe had more of a personal effect on people than any other picture did from the decade that rediscovered cool.
Pulp Fiction might have had more of an influence on other films and filmmakers (certainly Tarantino has continued to grow as a writer and director whereas Danny Boyle sadly hasn't) but there has always been something, at least to my eyes, more culturally resonate about Trainspotting and I think it will continue to grow in stature as the decades continue to slip away from us.
I was just a month into my 23rd year when Trainspotting hit American shores. I wouldn’t have guessed that a film centering on a group of Scottish junkies would have hit me so hard living in my relatively safe environment of Lexington, Ky. but it did and its emotive punch continues to sting me to this day.
There is something universal not only in the despairing alienation that the characters in Trainspotting feel, but also the in the undeniable exuberance of that alienation that struck me and many others as down right revelatory well over a decade ago. Trainspotting is not just another drug film, but it’s one of the great films centering on youth ever made…not a pretty safe Spielbergian picture of youth but instead of snapshot of what it often really is, a scrambled and sometimes sick and confused place that you’ll eventually have to escape in one way or another.
The film feels positively mythic to me today. The characters of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Tommy, Diane and Begbie feel like people I knew, not like characters from a film centering on a life I would never want to know. The film’s seemingly instant iconic scenes continue to resonate as well with an alarming freshness that few films at least in my lifetime could even touch, as do the break out performances by Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle and Kelly Macdonald. Trainspotting retains that rush of excitement that it carried with it back in 96 and I can't imagine its incredible adrenaline inducing power ever being lost.
The memories of initially seeing the film when it first arrived are almost as memorable as the film itself, with special note going to a packed midnight show of the film that turned into one of the most endearingly communal experiences I have ever encountered.
After that initial run, the hunt for variant versions began for me and a few friends with rumors of a different European cut, a pricey Criterion Laserdisc and the legendary Irvine Welsh novel that inspired the glorious madness in the first place.
Conversations would develop amongst people as to which character you were (I was always Sick Boy) and games came up involving quotes and moments from the film…both of which shouldn’t take away from how totally devastating the film is and remains.
Pulp Fiction might have some wince inducing moments but at its heart it is a fun film, whereas Trainspotting is truly heartbreaking and wrenching. If anyone can point me to another scene quiet as grueling as the discovery of the baby in the apartment I would love to see it.
The soundtrack, of course, is another key element and the film seemed to magically go right along with the Britpop so many of us kids in the nineties fell in love with. Added on to its embracing of everyone from Blondie to Lou Reed (has “Perfect Day” ever sounded the same since?) and Trainspotting becomes in a very profound way my Easy Rider…a picture that crystallized a moment, a vivid portrait of not just junkies on the dole in Scotland but also me in my bedroom playing the first Elastic lp over and over again until the grooves were worn nearly completely down.
I revisit the film every year or so and I find while I keep aging, it somehow manages to stay the same…somehow not losing any of its power to shock, touch and move me. I really don’t know how it plays to people in their teens or early twenties now who come across it. Maybe it’s dated already, I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. For me, Trainspotting is one of the great films…a gleeful celebration of youth in all of its sometimes ugly and messy splendor.
Of all the moments in the film, it is Sick Boy’s lament that “at one time, you've got it, and then you lose it, and it's gone forever" that perhaps hits me hardest when revisiting it, and I suspect I am not the only one who nods in knowing agreement when they hear those lines now. That moment in particular touches me the most in the film, bringing on an equal level of sadness and comfort that I doubt I will ever get over.